Rick Burke has had a longtime affinity for the first-generation of the sweet, smooth and sassy Chevrolet Bel Air.
The Inverness resident's passion began in high school when he relied on a 1956 sedan for daily transportation. He purchased it from a schoolmate pal.
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"It had the small six-cylinder that seemed like it would run forever," he said. That dependable powertrain was especially handy during his junior year when he was called out of class for a family emergency.
"Mom was in labor with my sister. In the pouring rain I drove her to Lutheran General Hospital (in Park Ridge). It was close but she almost gave birth in the front seat!"
Despite the memories and its first-car status, the Chevy enthusiast eagerly anticipated an upgrade. He soon found one. "It was a dream come true to own a Bel Air but this one was rough around the edges," Burke said.
Instead of flash and flair, his four-door was coated in dull primer black paint, was missing the front bumper and the hood was tied down with wire. "It sure wasn't pretty but as a young man I got my wish."
The bowtie jalopy lasted three years before leaving Burke's hands. From then on, his eyes were peeled for a much more attractive replacement. "I wanted a numbers-matching vehicle that had the 'Wow factor' that I had been missing."
That time arrived in 1990 when Burke purchased his fantasy 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air. The vehicle was located right in Inverness, where he now lives. "After seeing the car, it was a no-brainer to make the purchase. It was exactly how I envisioned it," Burke said.
The Tropical Turquoise convertible spent time in Wisconsin where it had received a full frame-off restoration in the late 1980s. That meticulous overhaul gave Burke an extremely solid foundation with only several minor items requiring attention. The engine compartment was "freshened up" and given new hoses, he said, new brake lines were added for that "like-new appearance."
The '57 Chevy is still powered by the factory-bestowed 283-cubic-inch V-8, equipped with the dual-quad carburetor option. Since Burke does use the drop-top regularly, he exchanged the factory drum brakes for aftermarket discs. Inside the whimsical turquoise and white cabin, Burke had the carpet deep cleaned and added a modern stereo in the glove box.
"The car had been babied and was in pristine condition. The previous owner had it sitting in his basement like a showpiece," Burke said.
The Bel Air beauty has all the makings of a genuine attraction, featuring all the bells and whistles, such as door handle guards, bumper guards, a continental kit, fender skirts and dual radio antennas. All that sparkling eye candy contributes to a truly special behind-the-wheel experience.
"It feels just like graduation day; it's such a special feeling. Wherever I go, people smile. There's such a universal appeal."
Burke certainly has fond memories associated with his car, but he's had the opportunity to share it with another group with even deeper ties. In 2007, Burke drove the Bel Air in Glen Ellyn at Glenbard West High School class of 1957's 50th reunion.
"I was asked to drive the prom king and queen in their parade. They had grins from ear to ear sitting in the back seat."